Measuring Rurality. And Using Data to Inform Better Rural Policy.

Take a minute and ask yourself what state you think of as the “most rural.” Go ahead. Don’t look it up. Just write down what you think are the top 5 rural states in order.

Defining “rurality” is something that we in the rural advocacy world often take for granted. And that is because we’d often rather skip the definitional confusion and get on with the issue, the snark and the dogfights in front of us.

Defining rural is part science and part art, really. My mentor and editor at the Daily Yonder, Tim Marema, likes to say that you know you’re in a rural place when you can pee outside anywhere and anytime you have the need. But mostly, you know a place is rural when you see it.

My buddy Shawn Poynter, a pro photographer who I also met through the Yonder, had this to say when asked about the difference between photo-shooting in rural compared to urban:

“I think it’s more the environment and how that affects you. A lot of things are easier in most small towns, it’s easier to talk to people, I think. One thing that I heard from a colleague was, “It’s much easier to park in rural America.” That’s kind of a brilliant insight I’d never really considered. You can just be driving and if you find a picture you want to take, you just pop the car over and you’re parked.”

I like that. Rural means you can find a parking spot or just pull over and take in the scenery if the moment presents itself.

During the last two years, my own personal understanding of rurality has expanded greatly. As a writer covering rural policy and demographic data, I have learned and changed. One of the places most relevant for me personally has been a broader, more inclusive notion of rural as it relates to farming and agriculture.

Coming from an agricultural family, and being active for the last twenty years in farm policy issues, I admit that I have sometimes been in the fold of rural=agriculture. If you listen to rural policy debates, the notion that rural=agriculture and agriculture=rural is certainly the “conventional wisdom” when it comes to local economic impact. In some rural places, that’s clearly true. In other rural places, even the majority of rural places, rural=agriculture is hardly reality.

By way of personal explanation, I wasn’t one to be part of the 4H-FFA-University-Farm Bureau-Commodity Group Leadership pipeline. You won’t hear me spout off about the inevitability of economies-of-scale or the imperative of “feeding the world” through monocultures and CAFOs. Every time I’m around some white guy in a suit lecturing a bunch of “hobby farmers” or “part-time farmers” or “socially disadvantaged farmers” or “activists” about “real farmers” and “real Americans”. . . . Let’s just say I start to question my personal vows of nonviolence and pacifism.

I am writing about this because the working public definition of rurality plays a significant role in the national civic discourse. You know the drill: the rural-urban divide, Trump Country, rural as a stand-in for white working class, the Heartland, Flyover Country, the Midwest, the Corn Belt, rural economic anxiety, etc.

I’m getting off track. Back to the question at hand. What state is the most rural? What states have the most rural people living and working lives within them?

The Census Bureau has a fairly robust and credible answer to these questions. (SEE: tables and source-data below). What if I told you that the top-ten rural states by percentage of population don’t include any “Midwestern” state outside of North and South Dakota. Would you believe it if I said that “socialist” Senator Bernie Sanders represents the 2nd most rural state by percentage of population? Yep. Vermont is the second only to Maine in terms of rurality. I would have rejected that as simply untrue two years ago.

Or consider the rurality of states by rural resident raw numbers instead of by percentage. Number one is Texas, followed by North Carolina. Heck, New York has the 7th highest number of rural people in it of any state (2,349,997 New Yorkers are rural).

Returning to the idea that rural=agriculture, the insightful Farm Journal Columnist John Phipps recently wrote that he was leaving the Farm Bureau over frustrations about the organization’s delegate designation process, its bogus membership numbers based on insurance sales and blind political allegiance to President Trump, among other reasons. Phipps pointed out that California is by far the biggest agricultural state, producing 19.7% of U. S. farm-level agricultural GDP (Gross Domestic Product). Iowa is ranked second at 5.5%, but a long ways behind the Golden State. In the census table below, California ranks dead last in rurality by percent (5.05% rural) and 11th in number of rural residents (1,880,350 rural Californians).

Phipps and I don’t agree about much politically. He’s a limited government free trader. I’m a believer in universal social programs (Medicaid for all, increasing social security, raising taxes on the rich) and trade policies based around food sovereignty and corporate accountability. That being said, we have both chimed in at times about agriculture’s repeated chirping about “being the biggest industry in most states.” That’s simply not true. I’m with Phipps that a little humility and egalitarianism could go a long way to Making America Great Again. (Also, anyone that publicly leaves the Farm Bureau is worthy of a lifting up.)

Here in Washington, the state I now live in, we are certainly dominated by Seattle and the urbanity all around it. But, Washington is also the sixth leading state by farm-level GDP. Sure, Washington comes in 35th in the rurality percentage rankings, but there are also 1,072,671 rural Washingtonians. That is a mere 23,000 fewer rural residents than there are in all of Iowa, a rural standard-bearer. I’m not picking on Iowa, because it’s one of the most misunderstood rural states in the mix (there will be more to say on that in the future).

Another dataset worth considering is the Daily Yonder’s consistent coverage of the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) “dominant economic sector” by rural county reporting. It documents where rural economies rank on the economic engine spectrum. It’s informative to see in map form where agriculture is dominant versus where it isn’t. The BEA data also includes rural counties dependent on recreation, manufacturing, mining and government jobs as well as those rural counties that are not specialized. And agriculture (which even includes forestry, fisheries, and hunting), by the BEA accounting, ranks fifth in earnings out of seven rural economic sectors. Agriculture, in fact, ranks sixth out of seven sectors in the number of jobs it provides in rural America.

Using the Census Bureau definition of rurality is certainly not perfect. The place I grew up and lived a lot of my life, Bates County, Missouri, is a case in point.

Bates County is in the West Missouri Plains. It has a large land area cut into a very rectangular grid of highways and gravel roads. The population is 16,334 according to county-level Census Bureau data. There’s a handful of small towns, hundreds of small-ish cow-calf farms and a few larger row-crop operations. There are significantly more water towers around the county than there are stoplights. Drive around Bates County a while and you’ll have no doubt that the place is “rural.” It’s got that 21st Century farmstead lower Midwest/Upland South vibe going for it — barbed wire fences, Osage Orange hedgerows, pastures and woodlots, pickups in front of Morton buildings. Good people, living life the best they can, trying to do their best for their children and grandparents and communities.

Still, in 2003, Bates County became officially classified as part of the Kansas City Metropolitan Statistical Area. There are reasons for these kinds of designations. For Bates County, it has everything to do with KC’s sprawling growth. “Seventy-one highway,” now Interstate-49, is the main artery bisecting the county North-to-South. The four-lane highway is also the financial lifeline for many Bates County people that drive an hour-plus each way for their jobs. They’re covering ground instead of sitting in traffic most of the time, yes, but that’s still a lot of travel time. That large group of commuting workers is the reason Bates County is now considered “urban” in the eyes of the Census Bureau.

That Bates County is considered urban makes me think that the rural statistics are undercounted if anything. But these statistics are the best we’ve got for now.

I feel the need to present this information for a couple of reasons. First, it’s useful for me to deliver these rurality-by-state tables when I’m participating in fact-checking or policy reporting. Second, there is clear and compelling data available to inform a much more nuanced, inclusive picture of rurality.

Life is certainly more than a math problem, as is the policymaking process. I do think, and I know this is going to be “controversial” to some people, that credible data and research should somehow play a role in shaping public debate. I’m hardly a technocratic utopian. People that know me personally understand that I’m way too much of a hippie to be supporting any “tech will save the world” pipedream. I rant and rave as much as the next yokel, but I am committed to making arguments informed by facts, science and transparent models and projections.

These rurality tables are hardly “revolutionary.” They will also probably surprise you. Hopefully, the data can help to better inform public understanding of rural realities. Mostly, I think you’ll see that the rural=agriculture framing that tends to govern public discourse is off track. Knowing the numbers has helped me see outside my rural=agriculture bubble.

I want to be clear that agriculture is hugely important. And farmers are certainly getting shafted by politicians and corporate capitalism. So are farmworkers and meatpacking workers and food processing workers and other laborers throughout the food system. All of the laborers throughout the system need a raise if you ask me, also better health care and work conditions, and that cash has to come from somewhere. Part of the solution is better agriculture policy.

In my experience and reading of history, my view is that better agriculture policy lies in changing farm programs to limit overproduction through supply management and commodity price floors. Another answer is incentivizing conservation-based and soil regenerating practices while applying penalties to practices that concentrate air and water pollution. A third answer is limiting market power and control by agribusiness “middlemen.” Increasing taxes or fees on the investor class and the billionaires and multimillionaires is imperative to getting these changes accomplished.

That doesn’t mean that rural policy should stop at the farm policy level though. Better rural policy requires a more inclusive framework: rural infrastructure, nutrition and public health programs, telecommunications, housing, clean energy, economic diversification, cleaning up messes, etc. There is already a federal agency set up to deliver these policy improvements in rural communities. Of course, it’s called the U. S. Department of Agriculture, which kind of proves the rambling point I’m trying to make.

Also, Paul Krugman is a hand-wringing city boy with a limited imagination and a very small rolodex. The economic forces that Krugman doesn’t know how to solve have names: advanced capitalism, concentrated wealth and power, productivity and wage theft, political neglect, structural racism, toxic masculinity. He, and other big-thinking liberals, have had their chance to do something about economic inequality, increasing corporate power and rural wealth extraction for years. They’ve failed, and that’s one of the reasons why rural people like me have a chip on their shoulder about Krugman’s “Getting Real about Rural America” pontification.

Oh, and Mr. Krugman, you did the agriculture=rural and rural=agriculture thing I described above, let alone your weird obsession with East Germany. You should use better data and statistical analysis to inform your supposed rationality. I know some data nerds that could help sharpen your analysis if you’re interested in learning more. And, hey, we’re rural, so obviously we work cheap.

Data tables derived from the U. S. Census Bureau:

Census Bureau definition of “Rural:”

Rural Policy Diary is an experiment in sharing data, concepts, ideas, frustrations and analysis that emerge from my rural policy reporting. My core concerns are economic justice, the ecological and climate crisis, rural wealth and labor extraction, public ignorance of rural diversity and the games that politicians play to distract us all. I use this platform to organize my thoughts and catalog information that isn’t published elsewhere. I don’t spend a lot of time editing these posts for clarity and linearity.